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BBS On Life Support--What to Do When it Fails...

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Jerry Pounds

In the last 15 years thousands of Behavior-Based Safety (BBS) processes have been implemented worldwide.  BBS is the most commonly used process to obtain order of magnitude improvements in injury reduction.  It is participative, preventive, and positive; it is the Six Sigma – the TQM for safety.  Its core components are so powerful that it is hard to imagine how you can implement it and not get great results.

I’ve been selling BBS systems for 10 years, and I don’t have an agenda relative to methodology; I just want happy clients.  So I listen when the people I talk to are frustrated; the companies who have attempted to implement BBS and the process floundered and stalled.  Or, they are 5 years into a process that everyone has lost interest in and they want to talk about a “booster,” or something to “give us a shot in the arm.”

Amazingly, most people who have a failed system don’t have a clue why it isn’t working.  Often, they will bring in another BBS provider (consulting company), in hopes that a new approach with new language will “work.”  The employees get cynical, because the new process requires changes that don’t seem to make a difference.  The average front line employee sees similar systems with different buzzwords; and they are right.

What went wrong? Why are there so many dissatisfied BBS clients, abandoned systems, bastardized hybrids, and home grown catastrophes? I can think of a few reasons, but I’m not going to pull out the worn-out “maybe you were not ready,” cliché.  Most companies have decent safety management systems, and most companies are ready for “the right BBS process.” 

Failures and lukewarm BBS systems all have a few common roots:

1. You Did Not Do Your Homework– there are several legitimate BBS providers, but there are also a lot of pseudo-BBS providers.  Just because a company is large and has a big market presence does not mean they can implement a good BBS process.  They just know how to sell and they let their brand do the talking for them.

Similarly, just because some guy went through several site implementations at the company where he used to work does not make him a good consultant, or someone who is qualified to advise other companies.  When I say do your homework, I mean learn something about the core principles of BBS and compare that to the potential provider’s process.

Does the provider actually know anything about behavioral science – the research-based principles of human behavior? Are their consultants knowledgeable about the science of behavior-change, or are they safety professionals that have seen a lot of BBS?  You might think that doesn’t matter, but when you discover that your employees are still taking risks and your supervisors are still favoring productivity and their paperwork over safety it’s good to have someone to ask…why?


2. You Got an Off-the-Shelf BBS System Instead of a Customized Process – the large BBS providers have standardized processes.  Most of the time their consultants have been thoroughly trained in using a specific methodology accompanied by specific tools and printed material.  The company usually has a book written by an authority that establishes their credibility. 

When you have lots of pre-printed material, copyrights, trademarks, and patents, you have inflexibility.  They can’t change their process to    accommodate the nuances of your company, culture, or operation. They tend to force-fit the exigencies of your safety management system into pre-packaged assumptions and solutions.  They can not do something differently – even if they know it works better – if it contradicts    something that has been published in their sacred text…the book that established their credibility in the first place.


3. No Pickles, No Lettuce – Special Orders Do Upset Us– You bought the big name and now they own you.  Everybody in your industry knows that you use “X” company as your BBS provider.  You have added a new appendage to your safety management system; “X’s” BBS process.  It has so much notoriety, that your own safety process has lost its identity.  It’s like marrying a movie star; you lose your identity – you’ve become Mr. or Mrs. Celebrity. 

What you really needed was a customized process; you needed a knowledgeable, experienced BBS consultant to help you integrate the key BBS components into your existing safety management system.  You should have a personalized system – adapted to your nation, region, industry, site, and work group functions.  You needed input; an opportunity to learn the basics and make some of the decisions about how, when, and what.

But, the big provider used their clout to shout you down.  They’ve done this dozens (even hundreds) of times before and you have to do it they way they want.  There is only one way; their way.  It is only later…many dollars later that you become aware that you could have screwed up for a lot less money if you had done it yourself.

But now it’s too late; they have you encircled by their lawyers.  You can’t do this or that without their approval; if you do, you may be stealing their proprietary material or pirating their intellectual capital.  If you want to use another provider in another plant, the big players may have to give you their permission.


4. You Bought Complexity Instead of Basic Tools – yeah, but all that detail looked so inviting.  All that stuff. It was impressive; there were so many training meetings, team meetings, tools, books, continuing education classes, annual conferences, software upgrades – it was overwhelmingly.  You think, it must be good, because it takes so much time.

Nobody told you (even though your intuition should have) that complex and expensive does not equal effective.  Everybody thinks, “It’s just me; I think this is all too complex because I’m not smart enough to grasp it all.”  You thought you were allergic to something when your eyes began to water while they were explaining the data software.

No, your intuition was on the money.  Just because you don’t understand it doesn’t mean you are simple.  It may have too many pieces because it favors the providers selling process or their sales price.  A BBS process can be implemented for 1/4th of the cost that some of the bigger providers charge.


5. Your Leaders Are Not Involved– I don’t mean they just wrote a check.  I mean they are out doing observations, talking to frontline employees about BBS, attending Safety Committee meetings, and asking questions about progress and participation.

Leadership involvement needs to be tracked, measured; it needs to be public and they need to be accountable.  The best BBS implementations have obsessed leadership; they talk the talk and walk the walk.  They won’t let it fail because it is number one on their values list.

Leadership involvement communicates that the company cares about the well-being of their employees.  It lets the public know that the organization has a heart.  Customers like companies with a heart – with compassion, caring and respect for their employees.

Each leader needs to have a self-developed, self-managed checklist of specific support behaviors that they use to track themselves against – with goals and public transparency.  Leaders need to meet and talk about their individual scores…and hold themselves accountable for doing the things that will make safety and your BBS process the key value in the company.


6. You Did Not Know When to Ask for Help– your gut tells you that the BBS process is not working.  Employees are not enthusiastic – not even involved.  Meetings are not being held – observation sheets are being pencil whipped.  You don’t trust the data.  Your process is dying; atrophy is obvious but you keep looking for a quick fix.

What you need to do is find an experienced free-lance or small group of credentialed BBS implementers and pay one of them to come in for a day and take a look around; talk to them and let them talk to the employees.  There is no substitute for third party objectivity.  There are plenty of experienced BBS consultants who have implemented dozens of BBS processes who are willing to spend a few days with you to give you some guidance.

Allowing your employees to meet with a BBS consultant and do some course correction and problem solving can energize them.  It allows them to make changes their experience has identified – to make improvements that will customize the process to the work, the company, and the culture.


7. You Don’t Know How to Deliver Effective Feedback, Recognition, and Celebrate Success

What leaders attend to, what they talk about positively, and what they reward become the key values in an organization.  Most supervisors don’t know how to interact with employees in a way that energizes critical behaviors – that helps performers identify value added behavior and change behavior that is not working.

Providing positive feedback during observations is critical to behavior change.  Recognizing the people who are doing observations, and celebrating the up and down stream data improvements is important to creating energy and enthusiasm.  Employees need to know that their behavior makes a difference.  In some companies BBS involvement is a condition of employment.

Human behavior is determined by consequences; what pays off for you or what does not determines what you are going to do on the job.  If your BBS system has not incorporated the basic principles of behavioral technology – of behavior change, then you are unlikely to be successful at evolving and maintaining you BBS process over the long haul.  Celebrating and rewarding safe behavior is essential.

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